I have been thinking about using handwoven fabrics in art. There are plenty of fabric-based art forms – art quilts, art-to-wear, and couture spring readily to mind – and handwoven fabrics can be used in any of them. (Handwoven fabrics being, first and foremost, cloth – if you have the nerve to cut it!)
But there is a big difference between using handwoven fabric in a piece and needing handwoven fabric for a piece. I could weave a length of fine cotton in plain weave, cut it up, and sew a quilt with it. But unless I did something special to show off the weaving, the handwoven-ness would not contribute anything to the design of the quilt; I could substitute a machine-woven fabric with very similar results. The hand woven fabric would not be necessary to the piece. One could simplify (and speed up!) the process tremendously by replacing the handwoven fabric with commercial cloth, with very little impact to the finished piece.
Now, one could write an entire essay – or more likely a book – on whether there is value in hand-making something you could do just as easily with a machine. In general, I feel that the answer is YES!, because the act of making is sacred, and it deepens my connection to the Divine and the world around me. That said, I feel that making something that is unique, that is distinguishable from a machine-made object, and that could not be made by a machine, is superior to simply mimicking mass-produced things. The reason is simplicity and elegance: I believe in doing things the simplest and most elegant way possible, and creating something by hand that is identical (or nearly so) to something mass-produced is an extremely inefficient way of getting the object. It may be worthwhile from a process perspective (usually as a way of practicing mindfulness), but looking at result vs. effort, it’s a waste of time to duplicate something mass-produced by hand. It is, invoking the mathematical term, not elegant – it contains extraneous steps and complications en route to the product. It is not simple.
And this is what I am wrestling with now: how to make handwoven fabric a necessary component of a fiber art piece. What does handweaving contribute to a piece, design-wise? Could something simpler, cheaper be substituted, and if not, why not? How does it make the piece better?
Answering this question requires, among other things, delving into what makes handwoven fabric unique. What can I do with handweaving that cannot be done by machine? Is the difference big enough to invest my time in handweaving something rather than purchasing commercial fabric?
There are some obvious things that handwovens do more uniquely than purchased commercial fabric. Texture, for example: it is easy to put pleats and ruffles in fabric using either weave structure or elastic yarns, and this is not available commercially. (It can be duplicated – to some extent – by sewing techniques, however. So is it really unique?) Color, obviously, and choice of fiber/yarn. Patterning in the weave structure – the list goes on and on.
But how much do these elements matter when assembling an art piece? It depends on what you’re using it for, and how far away it will be viewed. Many of the best characteristics of handwoven fabric are only obvious up close. If your garment will be viewed from twenty feet away, then any fine details will be lost. This isn’t a barrier to weaving fabric for the fashion runway, but is a design consideration. One of the reasons I chose to work with color in my entry to the Handwoven garment competition is because it is one of the few unique things you can do with handweaving that is visible from 20 feet away. But I wouldn’t use a subtle white-on-white huck lace on the runway – at that distance it will be virtually indistinguishable from plain weave. Again, design choices.
I am wrestling with how to use handwoven fabric in quilts. Art quilts, from the little I’ve seen, treat fabric more or less like paint, focusing on creating visual motifs using printed fabric. Is there a place for handwoven fabrics to contribute to this, and would they contribute enough to be worth the additional labor of weaving the fabric, thread by thread?
I don’t have any easy answers to this puzzle, but it is something I expect to chew on throughout my artistic career. I do have some design thoughts, however, and will elaborate on them in some subsequent blog posts.